We Lost to an Unpopular Extremist. Let’s Get Back to Winning.

Since I’ve been back in the States, the question I’m asked more than any other isn’t “How was your year in Malaysia?” but instead, “What went on with the election?” There have been a lot of truly fascinating discussions about what happened, from Matt Karp’s piece in Jacobin to Jamelle Bouie’s piece in Slate (not to mention his appearance on WooCast) to my friend Søren’s article on the failure of the Clinton campaign. It’s taken me a while, but I wanted to offer a some of my own thoughts. Enjoy.

I used to think ideology mattered a lot, before 2016. In 2012, ideology was the story of the day. There were Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, who handily lost races in red states because their rather extreme (and incorrect) views on abortion. You could see, in those races, a huge inflection point at when they said their “gaffes”—they went from handily winning their elections to handily losing them. And there were other races that seemed to turn on ideology: red state Democrats Heidi Heitkamp and Jon Tester both eked out wins in Montana and North Dakota after staking out a centrist stance. And let’s not forget that Mitt Romney’s defeat was largely blamed on the hard-line positions he stood on for the Republican primary. The Republicans’ main fix to their electoral problem, back then, was an ideological reform: Republicans would push for the extremely popular, bipartisan immigration reform bill and try to convince Latinx that the GOP platform wasn’t that bad. That plan had a lot of logic to it—for decades, our politics has long been a struggle between the party bases pushing candidates away from the center to match their own views, and party establishments pushing candidates towards the center to appeal to the general electorate.

But 2014 didn’t quite match up with the same ideology theory of 2012. Republicans did basically nothing to take on immigration, and yet the fairly right-wing Cory Gardner won a Senate seat in Colorado by coming out ahead with Hispanic voters. Joni Ernst in Iowa, a purple state if there ever was one, won handily even though her views were no less right-wing than Todd Akin or Mourdock. There were signs on the left, too, that ideology didn’t matter too much: Mark Warner’s moderate, supposedly “Virginia-friendly” views couldn’t stop him from almost losing his seat, Charlie Crist’s center-left stance couldn’t propel him to victory against an unpopular Tea Party governor in Florida, yet Jeanne Shaheen did OK in New Hampshire running against moderate Scott Brown with a fairly liberal campaign. There were some back then, such as Bob Moser in the American Prospect, that noted that the candidates who had populist, soak-the-rich messages performed better than candidates who tried to appear center-left, but that line of thinking didn’t garner much attention at the time. For me, I thought it was a weird quirk of the midterms—2016 would see us revert back to normal.

Of course, that’s not what happened, and not even close. Trump won in the states that mattered by using an extremist platform chock full of super unpopular ideas and vague platitudes, against Clinton’s well-formed, poll-tested set of ideas that remain, well, pretty popular amongst most of the electorate. We heard from Trump voters that they didn’t actually think he was going to carry out the plans he said he would in his so-called platform, and that they didn’t think he was qualified to be President, and yet, he won anyway. We thought that Trump’s extremism, hot temper, and lack of experience would turn away moderates from his campaign in droves. That just never happened.

I fear now that we’re moving from a political system where ideology is queen to one where party identification reigns. I thought so after the NRA’s ridiculous endorsement of Trump this summer—they endorsed him months before they did Mitt Romney in the 2012 cycle, even though Trump has been more supportive of stronger gun laws than basically anyone running for the GOP nomination in recent memory. It didn’t matter that Romney has a more consistently anti-gun law ideology than Trump: what did matter was that NRA members supported Trump in the 2016 primaries and they didn’t support Romney in the 2012 primaries.[1] I posited after the NRA’s Trump endorsement that, had the Dems nominated for President a Western, unabashedly anti-gun law candidate, the NRA still would’ve found a way to endorse Trump, and I think that’s still right. It’s not about getting the policies you want enacted anymore; instead, it’s about making sure your guy wins and the other person loses.

That’s, well, not a good situation for our country to be in. Our best laws throughout the 20th century came from people of different ideologies coming together on specific issues they agree on to do something that would make people’s lives better. My old boss, Rabbi David Saperstein, would talk glowingly about building a coalition to pass the now-controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). They brought together liberals concerned about the plight of minority religions (the precipitating event for the bill was a Supreme Court case that disallowed an American Indian tribe from carrying out a ritual with mushrooms), with conservative Christians concerned about the ability of Christians to practice their faith, with libertarians worried about government overreach. And they got lawmakers to pass a bill (97-3!) that alleviated all those concerns for two decades, until the Supreme Court and conservative governors like Mike Pence started reinterpreting the law to fit their own narrow purposes (but that’s another story). The point is that you can work with people who have different legislative priorities than you. You can’t work with people who just want to beat you.

So how do we win? How do we break through this non-ideological, partisan politics we’ve now found ourselves in, and win back power to launch an effective fight against racism, sexism, climate change, poverty, and now, fascism? I think that ideological reform is just the tip of the iceberg, really—for better or for worse, just about all of the neoliberal Democrats who were left from the 1990s got wiped out during the 2010 midterms. The party that President Obama heads now as he leaves office is much more united in its support of support of tax hikes on the wealthy and other drastic measures to fight inequality, LGBT rights and protections, abortion rights, criminal justice reform, and many other issues than the party that voted him into office in 2008. There’s still work to be done, don’t get me wrong: we need a clearer position on things like health care, globalization, austerity, and Wall Street reform. But it’s not going to fix all our problems, or most of them. Instead, I think that there are three main things we’ll have to do:

First, we have to be authentic. That means: we have to find and empower the people that actually care about the issues they work on and are willing to take risks to do the right thing, and marginalize the people that are just in it to build their resumes. Authenticity is hard to describe in abstract, but like porn, we know it when we see it. Barack Obama showed authenticity in the 2008 campaign with his brave response to the Reverend Wright controversy. Joe Biden, who probably would’ve sailed into the White House, showed it with his admission of vulnerability after his son’s tragic death. Bernie Sanders showed it during the first debate, when he was handed the email server question on a silver platter, but instead took a pass because it was distracting from the issues he wanted to talk about. Whether or not Secretary Clinton was authentic (I’ve never met her, so I can’t pass judgment), she didn’t appear to be so. She never had, to my knowledge, one of those moments of indubitable authenticity throughout the entire campaign. As a result, many never believed that Clinton would actually look out for their interests, even if Clinton had and the few people I do know who met her said she really cared about the issues she worked on. Anecdotally, I heard from more than a couple conservatives that they would’ve been much more likely to vote for Sanders than Clinton because, even though they disagreed with his policies even more, they thought he was a trustworthy guy. And that’s worth a lot.[2]

In contrast, the candidates who did show authenticity, people like Stephanie Murphy in Florida, Jason Kander in Missouri,[3] and Roy Cooper in North Carolina, did fairly well to outpace Clinton in close races. Am I cherry-picking here? Maybe. But I do think that, even though people can’t tell what’s fake news and what’s real, we do have a good sense of when someone’s full of BS, and we don’t take it well. So how do we fix it? There are a lot of great people working in the Democratic Party and other progressive spheres, but also a lot of folks just looking to get their name out there. I remember going to my first statewide Democratic Party convention as a first-year in college and leaving a day early because I found the people there so nauseating. I doubt my state was unique in that norm of BS. I guess we, as people who value authenticity, will need to commit a lot of time and energy into these institutions of progressive power and wrest them back from those who would just like to promote their personal brand. And we need to get people who are authentic to actually run for office. Right now, elections often scare away the very people we’d like to run, from running. We need to make running for office so attractive for folks who would actually represent the Democratic Party and progressive causes well that they can’t help but run.[4] What would it take for folks like Van Jones and DeRay Mckesson and Shaun King and the countless folks doing great work in their own communities to run and win? I don’t know, but I’m open to ideas.

Second, we have to actually support unions again. Trump, for all his flaws, did have a somewhat coherent plan for helping the white working class (coherent, of course, only if you forget about racism and math, but still). It was simple: get the job-taking immigrants out of the country, blow up those job-killing trade deals, kill those job-killing regulations, and restore the white working class to the culturally dominant space it used to occupy. It’s pretty easy to see how you could vote for Trump with the expectation that he would actually make your life better. What about Clinton? She had some really good ideas to help the working class: paid family leave, the Buffet Rule, minimum wage hikes, campaign finance reform, immigration reform, Wall Street oversight: these are all good, popular ideas that would make people’s lives better. And yet, most of what I heard from the Clinton campaign was tax cuts and raising some taxes on the rich. That’s not a plan that people can understand. Sanders understood that: he made sure folks knew he was going to try his hardest to of reinstitute Glass-Steagal and take on the millionaires and billionaires.[1] What is a plan is talking about building up unions, raising the minimum wage, and guaranteeing income. It seems like it would’ve been pretty easy to have some campaign rhetoric along the lines of “Trump says he wants to make America great again, and he’s right, our economy is broken. We used to have plenty of good jobs, a growing middle class, and a difference between the rich and the poor that wasn’t that big. But since the 1970s, most folks’ paychecks haven’t been going up while the rich keep getting richer. Trump says he wants to make America great again, but all he wants to do is give handouts to the rich and kill the unions that gave us those great jobs in the first place. America was never a place where the rich could walk all over the poor, that’s what made us great. Me, I want to support unions, raise your pay, and make the rich pay their fair share. That’s how we’ll grow stronger, together.” Now, that’s clunky because I just came up with it in 5 minutes, and perhaps it’s too inscrutable, but there’s probably enough in that to craft a coherent narrative of how Clinton would actually make people’s lives better. Maybe it would’ve alienated a key constituency that I’m overlooking, but it also could’ve given low-income folks more of a reason to vote for her. I’m no communications expert, but it seems like something we can do.

[1] Read with your best Brooklyn accent, of course.

Finally, we have to actually treat class seriously. We have a long way to go towards giving adequate representation and empowerment to people of color, women, and LGBT communities in our progressive institutions, but it is at least something that we talk about. This Congress set records for numbers of women and people of color elected: we now have an unprecedented four women of color in the Senate—woo! (The chamber still has one non-white chief of staff.) Even though our efforts are often half-hearted and ineffectual, empowerment across races and gender identities is something that we talk about as a goal and give at least lip service to. When’s the last time we heard anyone in the mainstream progressive movement talk about getting more working class people in Congress? In the UK, it was an outrage when Labour Party elections got so expensive as to prevent rank-and-file union members from running for Parliament. Here, the average Member of Congress is a millionaire, and the median Democrat is wealthier than the median Republican. And it’s not just Congress, of course, or campaign finance laws that keep out working class folks. Unpaid internships close the door on students and grads that need to support their families, and working place culture isn’t necessarily open to folks who didn’t graduate from elite universities. I don’t have any hard and fast recommendations for how to bring the working class into the tent, and really, I’m not the best person to offer those recommendations, but we should figure it out. And maybe, if we actually put some effort into including white and non-white working class folks in the progressive decision-making machine, the white working class might start to listen to progressive ideas again. Plus, it’s the right thing for a progressive movement to do.

So those are my suggestions: be authentic, defend unions again, and treat class seriously. Of course, there’s more to do, and I don’t know if these answers will be the same answers we’ll need in 2018 and 2020 and beyond. It won’t lead to a permanent Democratic majority, nor should it. But maybe we can become progressives that actually win. It’s going to be hard to do, and no one’s going to talk about it much when we have Trump and DNC battles and whatever else to talk about, but our work on these issues has to start sooner rather than later. Let’s get to work.

[1] I actually can’t prove these statements, but they seem pretty intuitive to me, and they’re backed up by the limited evidence I could find. We don’t poll people and ask them if they’re NRA members or not, but in the one exit poll I could find from the primaries that asked about gun ownership (in New Hampshire), Trump was at 40% among gun households and 28% among non-gun households. In contrast, in the one poll from 2012 that I could find (for Louisiana), Romney did slightly worse in non-gun households (26% to 32%). Based on what we know about demographics in these elections, it would be shocking to me if NRA members didn’t go for Trump more than the median 2016 GOP voter, and go for Romney less than the median GOP 2012 voter.

[2] Is sexism wrapped up in this whole thing? Without a doubt. It’s no secret that whenever Clinton showed emotion in the ’08 race—authenticity—she was pilloried for being unstable. But there have been plenty of female candidates for high-profile offices that folks trusted more than Clinton. We need both more women candidates and more women candidates that aren’t afraid to show authenticity.

[3] WHAT AN AD. Kander lost his Senate bid, but his race—against an incumbent—was 15 (!!) points closer to his opponent than Clinton was.

[4] Thanks to Nyah Vanterpool for helping me come to this point.

[5] Read with your best Brooklyn accent, of course.


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